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Extending Franchises: Exploring New Worlds

Janet Hetherington examines how videogames are becoming entrenched as new vehicles for extending franchises and creating a different kind of blockbuster.

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Videogames are emerging as de facto sequels or prequels to blockbuster movies. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed puts new spins on the existing franchise. All Star Wars images © Lucasfilm Ltd.

Theres good news for film buffs. It looks like this is going to be a record year for the film industry, with projections of box office sales topping $10 billion.

Theres good news for videogamers, too. Bolstered by the release of the PlayStation 3 and the Nintendo Wii in late 2006, plus blockbuster games such as Halo 3 in September, the gaming industry is expected to exceed the $12.5 billion it generated in 2006 -- itself a record-breaking year.

Movies and games are becoming more intertwined, with games often acting as market support for headliner films. The relationship between Hollywood and the videogame industry is stronger than ever, says Gonzague de Vallois, SVP, publishing, Gameloft, whose company is producing American Gangster: The Mobile Game. It is quite rare, actually, to see a film launch without a videogame complement to it. The videogame has become a marketing tool that adds extended brand value to the film.

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In Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, the player is Darth Vaders Secret Apprentice.

Videogames are also enjoying an emerging role as de facto sequels (or prequels) to blockbuster movies, frequently bridging the gap between screen presentations. In some cases, as in LucasArts Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, the game will present new spins on the existing franchise, including the addition of new elements and new characters.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, with a 2008 release, will present an entirely new story that covers a part of the Star Wars saga set between Episodes III and IV. Chris Voy of LucasArts commented at //ADAPT 2007 that it will tell Darth Vaders story and introduce and entirely new character -- Darth Vaders apprentice.

Continuing the Star Wars saga may seem like a no-brainer, but due consideration is taken before any franchise is exploited, as well as the technological direction to be taken. The philosophy is to think about things, comments Voy, to think about what we do, what we want to do, and then we do it.

LucasArts is also working on a new Indiana Jones videogame that will likely benefit from the publicity around the new Steven Spielberg movie being filmed (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), but which is set in 1939 after The Last Crusade. Rob Clarke of LucasArts notes that, like The Force Unleashed, the Indiana Jones game is comparable in tone to any of the Indy films but is not affiliated with the upcoming movie.

In effect, videogames such as these are serving as fresh franchise content, providing fans with their Star Wars and Indiana Jones fixes -- in an interactive manner. That means developing and using new technologies such as motion capture and always trying to up the ante. Platforms are constantly evolving, and game producers must keep pace. The Indiana Jones videogame will be available for Xbox 360, PS3 as well as current consoles.

Were definitely trying to raise the bar, Voy says. Its very competitive. Were trying to create a cinematic quality with lighting, shaders, surface and animation. We want to make it come alive and create a lived-in environment with everything interactive.

In addition to providing enhanced graphics, there is a commitment to strong storyline and other presentation elements. For the Indiana Jones game, Clarke says, Its a clever script, and it took a year to develop. Clarke adds that he watched all of the films repeatedly to ensure that an authentic Indy experience would be created. He also comments that the music, the sound are so much part of the story.

Giving Voice to Beowulf

Todays extended franchises may be, in fact, A-list-style videogames that directly involve established composers, directors such as Peter Jackson (King Kong) and as well as key actors.

The Beowulf game was developed to be an interactive experience offering exclusive content unexplored by the film. All Beowulf images © Ubisoft.

The 3D medieval battlefield film Beowulf opened at No. 1 during its Nov. 16 weekend release, earning an estimated $28.1 million at the box office.

In October, Ubisoft announced that leading actors Anthony Hopkins, Ray Winstone, Brendan Gleeson and Sebastien Roche, who all appear in the epic Robert Zemeckis film, lent their voices and likenesses to the Beowulf videogame.

This is the first time Ive worked on a videogame, and I must say it was one of the hardest working days of my career, comments British actor Ray Winstone, who also appears in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But it was vital to capturing the power of the film and translating that into a great gaming experience, Winstone notes. Beowulf is a brutal character, a Dark Age-gangster with both hero and monster in him as a player, I can identify with the monster slayer.

The Beowulf videogame, which was released worldwide in conjunction with the films opening, was developed to be an interactive experience offering exclusive content unexplored by the film, extending the adventure through 30 years of the Beowulf story. The starring actors lend authenticity and intensity to the Beowulf videogame experience, something that was indispensable in order for us to extend the story beyond the movie, says Gabrielle Shrager, writer and lead story designer for the videogame.

The Beowulf game features original orchestral music, which supports and enhances the games actions. It starts as heavy Barbarian music and ends as a modern Hollywood score.

Top videogame composers Sascha Dikiciyan and Cris Velasco created an original orchestral music score for the Beowulf game. The score is described as an epic musical journey featuring anthemic choral/orchestral compositions and bombastic action cues driven by heavy brass and thunderous percussion.

The biggest challenge we had for Beowulfs soundtrack was that the music not only had to support and enhance the games actions, but it also had to follow the evolution of Beowulf universe; starting as a very heavy middle age Barbarian music and ending as a modern and powerful Hollywood score, says Manu Bachet, music supervisor, Ubisoft. Within a very aggressive schedule, Cris Velasco and Sascha Dikiciyan managed to compose the most refined Barbarian soundtrack ever heard on this side of the Danes kingdom.

The orchestral score was recorded with many of San Franciscos best symphony musicians at Skywalker Sound studios.

Who Ya Gonna Call?

Extending franchises through videogames can also mean breathing new life into older, but proven, properties. Sierra Ent. recently announced that Ghostbusters: The Video Game is in development. The new game, based on the popular 1980s films, is slated to ship in fall 2008 -- and it too will be utilizing the voices of the original actors: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson.

Godzilla Unleashed promises monster battles, interactive 3D cityscapes, big, destructible buildings and an innovative non-linear storyline that allows players to influence the story. © Atari.

In the Ghostbusters game, players (equipped with a variety of unique weapons and gadgets) will hunt, fight and capture a wide range of supernatural foe in a funny and frightening battle to save New York City from its latest paranormal plague. Building on the existing Ghostbusters franchise means working closely with its originators.

Our collaboration includes working closely alongside the team at Sony Pictures Consumer Products, Terminal Reality and Red Fly Studios, says Martin Tremblay, president, Worldwide Studios for Sierra Ent. We will create the ultimate Ghostbusters experience, full of the characters, ghosts and other paranormal creatures so many have come to adore over the years.

Another paranormal creature, Godzilla, is also getting a new videogame, from Atari. Godzilla Unleashed for the Wii and PlayStation 2, and Godzilla Unleashed: Double Smash for Nintendo DS, are scheduled for release in time for the holiday market.

Keehwan Her, producer, Atari, calls Godzilla a beloved franchise, and comments on how the new video game platforms will be able to showcase Each platform offers a unique line-up of monsters and game play innovations. The Wii version presents a new story mode and robust motion-based controls; the PlayStation 2 system includes a story mode along with a slightly different monster roster and the Nintendo DS version features two-player co-operative game play with side-scrolling action that takes advantage of both screens for dual action game play, adds Her.

Godzilla Unleashed promises monster battles, interactive 3D cityscapes, big, destructible buildings and an innovative non-linear storyline that allows players to influence how the story unfolds through their choices within battles.

Yet another tried-and-true franchise -- Lara Croft Tomb Raider -- has seen new videogame content developed. The Tomb Raider franchise is one of the most successful, with over 32 million video game copies sold to date. On Nov. 13, Eidos Interactive Ltd. shipped Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Anniversary for the Wii. The game offers more than three hours of exclusive new content in the Wii version of the game.

Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Anniversary for the Wii is the first time the hero appears on a next-generation console. The game realizes classic content with improved graphics and next-gen game play mechanics. © Eidos New Media.

This anniversary edition reflects the first time that Lara Croft appears on the next-generation console, and the game producers have taken the opportunity to realize classic content with improved graphics and next-gen game play mechanics. A new tool kit allows players to break through walls, take charcoal rubbings and uncover important clues buried in dense layers of ancient rock. Players will also be able to twist the Wii remote to illuminate dark areas with Lara Crofts new remote flashlight, uncovering secrets hidden in the dark.

This marks two important developments in the gaming industry: the coming of age of a classic franchise and the first time gamers get to physically emulate the Tomb Raider icon, comments Robert Lindsey, EVP of sales and marketing, Eidos.

Franchise Exclusivity

Another important development is the notion of exclusive content. Videogame producers are offering these exclusive enticements, and they are also carving out their excusive niches for delivery in the gaming market.

Studios are very well area the significant consumer base that video games offer, says Gameloftss de Vallois. Even in the mobile industry, we are seeing film and television licenses that are completely exclusive to the mobile platform. For example, the American Gangster mobile game is completely exclusive to the mobile platform. There will no other game tied in with the film launching for other platforms.

Gameloft creates games for mobile handsets equipped with Java, Brew or Symbian technology. The total number of games-enabled handsets is anticipated to exceed two billion units in 2008.

As for American Gangster: The Mobile Game, it is set in the Harlem of the 1970s, like the Ridley Scott film. The game allows players to either work their way up the ladder of the underworld as Frank Lucas or try to take down the crime empire as outcast cop, Richie Roberts. The game is available now through most U.S. carriers.

For American Gangster: Mobile Game Gameloft worked very closely with Universal Studios to get renderings of the movies environment, stills and the full script. © Gameloft.

We were fortunate to work very closely with Universal Studios to get renderings of the movies environment, says de Vallois. We were able to obtain numerous stills and the full script to work with. For example, the missions follow those featured in the film and the dialog is based on lines from the screenplay.

However, the mobile platform can present some unique challenges. One of the challenges of creating a game for the mobile platform is size limitations, de Vallois says. To create a realistic and captive environment within 600 kb requires a lot of skill and talent, because for the five to 10 minutes someone is playing a mobile game, they expect to be immersed in it fully -- visually and mentally.

Multiple Extensions

Franchises are being exploited in multiple media: books, movies, games and more. The Bourne Ultimatum mobile game, based on Robert Ludlum's best-selling novel, was launched for to mobile subscribers in August 2007. The game is part of Vivendi Games' cross-platform release strategy based on its exclusive global license with Ludlum Ent. Robert Ludlums The Bourne Conspiracy videogame from Sierra Ent. will be available on console in summer 2008.

The Bourne Ultimatum game offers a fully interactive environment, allowing players to strategically use floors, doors, walls and other features take cover and wreak havoc on enemies. The game also features newly reworked music from Bourne films.

Similarly, Frank Millers Sin City is a fast-growing franchise -- first as graphic novels, then a film and now a new videogame. In October 2007, Red Mile Ent. Inc. announced that game and animation veteran, Flint Dille, would spearhead the design, scriptwriting, story generation and overall production of Sin City: The Game (working title).

As with other videogames that extend franchise, the goal is to continue the expected franchise experience. Frank and I have been having a party coming up with nasty stuff for the game, Dille says. In true Sin City fashion, some old characters will return, new characters will appear and -- without giving anything away -- probably die horribly.

And then, some games are blockbusters all on their own, like Halo 3 which is the fastest-selling video game thus far and one of the most successful entertainment properties in history. Courtesy of Bungie Studios/Microsoft Game Studios. 

The New Blockbusters

Modern videogames extend franchises by creating new content, providing marketing support and continuing franchise visibility. They also may be blockbusters all on their own.

In September, the Xbox 360-exclusive Halo 3 videogame achieved $300 million in global sales during its first week. Halo 3 has proven to be the fastest-selling videogame thus far and is already one of the most successful entertainment properties in history.

In October 2007, Microsoft Corp. announced a plan for Bungie Studios, the developers of the Halo franchise, to embark on a path to become an independent company. Microsoft will retain an equity interest in Bungie, at the same time continuing its long-standing publishing agreement between Microsoft Game Studios and Bungie for the Microsoft-owned Halo intellectual property (IP), as well as other future properties developed by Bungie.

While we are supporting Bungies desire to return to its independent roots, we will continue to invest in our Halo entertainment property with Bungie and other partners, such as Peter Jackson, on a new interactive series set in the Halo universe. We look forward to great success with Bungie as our long-term relationship continues to evolve through Halo-related titles and new IP created by Bungie, comments Shane Kim, corporate VP, Microsoft Game Studios.

Still, creating the next blockbuster videogame requires savvy as well as excellence in planning and execution. Riding on the coattails of an existing franchise is never a guarantee for success. However, there are certain properties that have star appeal and that can translate well into videogame format.

Similar to other Ridley Scott films, we expect commercial success with American Gangster the film and mobile game, comments Gameloftss de Vallois. On our side, we took into consideration the mass appeal of the license. For us, thats a key factor in determining if we want to produce a game based on a specific film or television series. American Gangster not only had a great storyline full of action and drama, but it had elements of intrigue and suspense that makes the translation into a mobile game so much more natural and exciting.

Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and cartoonist who shares a studio in Ottawa, Canada with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat, Heidi.

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